May 24, 2022 | Local News
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

Sarah Hayden-Thomas (far right) with two of her fellow Cajun Chefs cook up some gumbo on April 7, 2022 during their trip to Dawson Springs, Ky., to feed people involved with tornado recovery. COURTESY OF SARAH HAYDEN-THOMAS

Feeding the hungry

‘Cajun Chefs’ cook for tornado-stricken Kentuckians in response to stranger’s kindness post-hurricane


Those who have experienced a natural disaster are all too familiar with the timeline of public response.

“The media, people come… then everyone pulls out,” said Sarah Hayden-Thomas, who brought a team – dubbed the “Cajun Chefs” – from Louisiana to assist western Kentucky tornado relief efforts.

Fr. Carl McCarthy (far left) takes a selfie with the Cajun Chefs who traveled from Louisiana during the week of April 4-8, 2022 to feed people involved with tornado recovery in Dawson Springs, Ky. Fr. McCarthy is the pastor of nearby Christ the King Parish in Madisonville, Ky., and a cousin of Sarah Hayden-Thomas, who spearheaded the project. COURTESY OF SARAH HAYDEN-THOMAS

“But nothing’s changed” when everyone leaves, said Hayden-Thomas. “We’re still broken.”

Hayden-Thomas grew up in western Kentucky and today resides in St. Amant, La. Her region was devastated by Hurricane Ida in 2021, and as someone who has lived through multiple hurricanes and floods, she knows what it is like to receive a torrent of support from across the country in the early days – only to be forgotten in a matter of months.

“We’re very familiar with disasters,” said Hayden-Thomas in a phone call with The Western Kentucky Catholic.

Yet they’re also familiar with incredible kindness.

After Hurricane Ida happened, her parish, Holy Rosary in St. Amant, was impacted by the generosity of a man from Kentucky who drove down with a packed trailer of supplies to help Holy Rosary with its recovery efforts.

The stranger arrived and departed without any fanfare, and did not even leave his contact information.

So when tornadoes devastated western Kentucky during the night of Dec. 10, 2021, Hayden-Thomas thought about how best to help her native state. She remembered the compassionate Kentucky visitor who had driven hundreds of miles to lend a hand.

Some of the Cajun Chefs organize packages of cookies during their April 2022 trip to Dawson Springs, Ky., to feed people involved with tornado recovery. COURTESY OF SARAH HAYDEN-THOMAS

“People asked me, ‘what can we do to help?’” she said.

Hayden-Thomas reached out to her cousin, Fr. Carl McCarthy, who is the pastor of Christ the King in Madisonville, Ky. Christ the King was one of the western Kentucky parishes that served as a tornado relief hub immediately after the storms.

“Because of that kindness (of the Kentucky visitor), crossing all boundaries and coming to us, we wanted to do something to give back,” said Hayden-Thomas.

With permission from her pastor, Fr. Joseph Vu, she started putting out word to neighboring parishes about doing something to help western Kentucky.

Their “mission trip,” as they called it, became a collaborative project by parishioners of St. Theresa of Avila Parish in Gonzales, La., St. Mark Parish in Gonzales, La., and St. John the Evangelist Parish in Prairieville, La. Local Knights of Columbus and other Catholic organizations became involved as well.

Hayden-Thomas, knowing the public’s initial support would ultimately end, told Fr. McCarthy that she wanted to bring the team in the following months, versus during the immediate aftermath.

Fr. McCarthy suggested that they come during western Kentucky’s spring break week from April 4-8, since volunteers would be converging on the area to help with recovery.

“Maybe you can help feed those extra people,” said Fr. McCarthy.

From that point on, the Louisiana parishioners plotted out the cooking and food prep details to feed hundreds of volunteers.

“It all came together,” said Hayden-Thomas.

A man clears the tornado-damaged barbecue pits at Dawson Springs City Park in Dawson Springs, Ky. By connecting with others in the local community to clean up the location, the Cajun Chefs were able to barbecue on the pits during their April 2022 trip to feed local people involved with tornado recovery. COURTESY OF SARAH HAYDEN-THOMAS

A team of 16 people traveled up to western Kentucky, where they served hearty Cajun fare out of a drive-thru tent at the Dawson Springs Community Center in Dawson Springs, Ky.

(That city had suffered some of the worst tornado destruction in Kentucky; severely-damaged Resurrection Parish in Dawson Springs was the only parish in the Diocese of Owensboro, Ky., declared a total loss.)

The Cajun Chefs stayed at Christview Fellowship Church in Madisonville, which had generously opened its doors for them to sleep.

A photo of their flyer went viral on social media, stating that “The Cajun Chefs from Louisiana will be at the Dawson Springs Community Center April 5-8 from 11 until the food is gone” and that they would be serving Cajun takeout food “for all in the community at no charge.”

On Tuesday, April 5 they provided 603 servings of jambalaya; on Wednesday, April 6 they provided 575 servings of chicken and sausage spaghetti; on Thursday, April 7, they provided 700 containers of gumbo and 150 lb. of barbecue chicken; and on Friday, April 8, they provided 525 servings of shrimp chowder.

Hayden-Thomas said that besides these meals given to volunteers, the Cajun Chefs also delivered 80 plates a day to the people who had been displaced by the tornadoes and have been staying on the property of Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park.

The Cajun Chefs joined Christ the King Parish for evening Mass one day, and on another day joined the community of Resurrection Parish for the Stations of the Cross, rosary and adoration.

The latter was held, as it has been since December, in a metal shed on the property of a Resurrection parishioner, so that the parish can continue to worship as their church is rebuilt.

Hayden-Thomas said the experience “just felt like you were helping your neighbor.”

Some of the Easter baskets assembled by the Cajun Chefs, who traveled from Louisiana to Dawson Springs, Ky., during April 2022 to cook Cajun meals for people involved with tornado recovery. The team also received generous donations to assemble Easter baskets for children still living in shelters with their families who were displaced by the December 2021 tornadoes. COURTESY OF SARAH HAYDEN-THOMAS

“We know what it’s like to be shell-shocked, to rebuild time and time again,” she said.

Hayden-Thomas’s journey came full circle when one of the Dawson Springs recovery volunteers, Kim Gilliam, happened across the very man from Kentucky who had helped Holy Rosary with its hurricane relief.

Gilliam connected Hayden-Thomas with the man, and the two later chatted on the phone. Hayden-Thomas asked the man how he came to help at their Louisiana church, and asked if he was Catholic.

“He said, ‘I’m not Catholic,’” said Hayden-Thomas. The man said he knew someone, who knew someone, who knew someone else – who told him about Holy Rosary and how it was helping people after the hurricane.

Quite simply, that was how he decided to drive down to help her church.

And, “five months later a group of Catholics came (to Kentucky) in response to someone who wasn’t even Catholic,” said Hayden-Thomas, reflecting on the ecumenical nature of their trip, such as getting to stay at the non-denominational church in Madisonville.

She said evangelizing through witness is important to her: “Let there be something about us that someone says ‘they have something I don’t, and I want to find it.’”

Fr. McCarthy told the WKC that the Cajun Chefs “offered what they had and who they are, and it was appreciated. That’s how it is with God’s love once you’ve experienced it.”

“They were sharing something they knew, which was food,” he said. “They gave what they had to give –and isn’t that what we are all called to do?”

Fr. Carl McCarthy, pastor of Christ the King Parish in Madisonville, Ky., with his cousin, Sarah Hayden-Thomas, who coordinated a week-long trip from Louisiana to nearby Dawson Springs, Ky., to feed people involved with tornado recovery. COURTESY OF SARAH HAYDEN-THOMAS

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